CHARLEY BOWERS (c.1889-1946)
Career Overview / Charley in the News / The Critics Rave / A Gag for the Ages / A Charley Bowers Mystery / Filmography
Charley Bowers is one of the most forgotten of the forgotten silent comedians. Even prior to his starring career, his work was familiar to millions of movie fans, though they never saw his name or face on-screen. As director of hundreds of Mutt and Jeff animated cartoons from 1916-1926, Bowers brought cartoonist Bud Fisher's tall-and-short "everyman" characters to life. But Charley had the itch to perform, and in 1926 he began his lifelong partnership with Harold L. Muller and launched his first series of "Whirlwind Comedies" for release by F.B.O. These were among the most creative, inventive films seen to that time. They made liberal use of stop-motion animation, pixillation, amazing sets and props as well as Bowers' wild imagination. Like Larry Semon, Bowers cheerfully sacrificed characterization for a great gag, and his plots often stopped dead in their tracks in order to pull off a bravura piece of animation. "Baffling" and "mystifying" are two words that one comes across when reading the original reviews. The only explanation for Bowers' commercial failure in the face of almost universally rave reviews may be the fact that be was simply ahead of his time.
Seen today, Bowers comedies still have the power to knock audiences in the aisles. Only a few shorts survive (most are in archives, particularly Quebec's) and it is well worth the effort to seek out these forgotten gems. In recent years a small coterie of silent comedy fans have begun the first serious efforts to produce a career and biographical picture of Bowers. The results can be seen below, but much work remains to be done.
CHARLEY IN THE NEWS:
BOWERS INSTALLS MACHINERY FOR HIS EDUCATIONAL NOVELTIES. Charley Bowers and his wonder working machinery have started to function for Educational. The "Wizard" whose work in many ways ranks with the most important progress in pictures for years, has set up his mysterious workshop at Educational Studios and has gone to work on his first picture in the series of six Bowers Comedies which recently were announced.
Bowers has produced his previous comedies in a comparatively small private studio on Long Island. He now has the support of the biggest and finest comedy producing plant the industry has ever known. If his pictures of the last season set records for bookings on Broadway - and they did - Educational is expecting even greater things for his pictures to be produced in the recently enlarged Educational Studios in Hollywood.
Educational considers this series as a distinctly different series of fun pictures. No usual tricks of double photography, superimposing, wire controlled gags, etc. are employed by Mr. Bowers. Instead, he uses his entire new and unusual process in putting on the screen any sort of action that the fertile imagination of Charley Bowers can conceive. And Bowers is known in the trade as a human generator of ideas, a creator of novel situations, both possible and impossible, but all sure-fire laugh getters.
- Moving Picture World, October 29, 1927
BOWERS STARTS SECOND. Charley Bowers has started production work on the second of the comedies he is making for Educational Film Exchanges, Inc. A sequence on an ostrich farm, in which thirty of the big birds will have a part, will give Bowers plenty of opportunity to use the secret and trick photographic process for which his comedies are famous. H.L. Muller, who was responsible for the direction of the initial fun vehicle, There It Is, is directing.
- Moving Picture World, December 17, 1927
AN IMPRESSION OF CHARLEY BOWERS by James R. Quirk, editor of Photoplay.
Highbrow critics talk in ornate polysyllables about the ingenuity and art of the German filmmakers. If they condescended to witness the nonsensical genius of a Charley Bowers comedy they could drool dictionaries.
In the world's most individualistic industry, he is Aladdin and the camera is his lamp. He is a Jack of all trades and a master of one. He can direct. he can write. He can conceive the most glorious idiocy. He is a MASTER of camera wizardry.
Every short feature bearing his name proves the camera is a monumental liar. He makes hard boiled eggs hatch little Fords, turns time upside down and releases the blessing of laughter. Once in a comedy he drove a herd of elephants and donkeys into the Capitol at Washington. The learned Solons got so excited they demanded an investigation. They had been deceived by trick photography. Charley and the elephants had never been near the District of Coolidge. (Note: this trick shot can be seen in Now You Tell One (1926) in Volume 8: "Tons of Fun" of Kino's "Slapstick Encyclopedia").
I suspect Charley of a conspiracy against the school system. He is a living proof of the bliss of booklessness. All the education he ever received consisted of six months in kindergarten. Then he was kidnapped by a circus. And look at him now. In one of his recent comedies, I witnessed a former Biograph director playing an extra bit.
His life has been been almost as goofy as his genius. His mother was a French countess, his father an Irish doctor, and Charley was born in Iowa. After that anything was possible.
It happened. At five a tramp circus performer taught him to walk rope. At six the circus kidnapped him. He didn't get home for two years and the shock killed his father.
Before he was nine Charley was supporting his mother. He walked rope, mowed lawns, ran elevators, printed menus, broke broncos, jockeyed horses, packed pork, sketched cartoons, toured vaudeville, directed plays, designed scenery, produced advertising, wrote history, animated one hundred reels of cartoons, worked out the Bowers process, invented a camera and - grew up.
Naturally the impossible is a joke to him. His whole life has been impossible and as a practical joker he is a near-millionaire. Give this little lad a great big look.
Educational Pictures Press Book for There It Is , submitted for copyright on January 23, 1928
CHARLES BOWERS DIES; PIONEER IN FILM CARTOONS. JERSEY WRITER, DIRECTOR AND PRODUCER'S CAREER BEGAN AT 6 ON TIGHTWIRE. Pompton Lakes, N.J., Nov. 26 - Charles R. Bowers, fifty-seven, a pioneer in the field of animated cartoons and at one time a wealthy producer of motion pictures comedies, died Sunday at St. Joseph's Hospital, Paterson, N.J., after an illness of five years. His home was at 10 Terhune Dr., Pompton Lakes.
Mr. Bowers was born in Cresco, Iowa, and started in the career of amusing his fellow man by appearing in a tightrope act in a circus at the age of six, and in the next twenty years he played in the circus, in stock companies, painted signs, designed posters and painted murals. He became a cartoonist for The Chicago Tribune and The Chicago Star then went into the field of animating cartoons, one of the founders of the Animated Motion Pictures Corporation. He animated the ancient cartoons of Mutt and Jeff and The Katzenjammer Kids.
Then he went into the field of writing, directing, producing, photographing and acting in what were called novelty-type comedies, as principal stockholder of the Charley Bowers Comedy Corporation. The titles of his ephemeral productions are not impressive: He Couldn't Help It, Now You Tell One, Many a Slip, Say A-ah, Whoozit, The Valiant Rider and You'll be Sorry.
Mr. Bowers worked prodigiously. He turned out illustrated books for children, writing the texts and making the cartoons himself. He lived in Wayne Township, N.J., for eight years and he did cartoons for The Jersey Journal.
In 1941, when he became seriously ill, he was not able to keep up with the commitments of his contracts, and he could not find an artist or writer to do them for him. He taught his wife, Mrs. Winifred Leyton Bowers, to do some of the work - she learned to draw so well that her work is now on exhibit at the Pompton Lakes library - but the contracts lapsed.
His wife is his only survivor.
- New York Herald-Tribune, Nov. 27, 1946
THE CRITICS RAVE:
YOU'LL BE SORRY (Educational - Two reels) Charley Bowers is the screen's foremost and most ingenious creator of baffling comedy. In his newest Educational release, one of his extremely mystifying subjects is on display. The subject is a little dog, very funny to look at. This mechanical canine lends Bowers excellent support and has some long stretches in which he performs alone and in which he will secure a number of laughs.
- Raymond Ganly in Motion Picture News, May 19, 1928
HOP OFF (Educational - Two Reels) Count on Charley Bowers for novelty and ingenuity. His comedies are so ingenious in fact, that one can only vaguely conjecture on his far-famed process which permits him to do things which at first thought would seem to be impossible. In his last few Educational subjects, he has made oysters and roaches do the strangest and most unforseen things. Novelty - novelty - novelty - that's Charley Bowers.
Even the most jaded fan will wonder at the strange happenings of Charley's latest. For in it, two trained fleas are the principal performers. They are Charley's flea circus and incidentally, his bread and butter. If you were to hear the mystifying things they do you may perhaps think that we had no control of our typewriter and had let it run daffy. There can be no argument that Mr. Bowers mystifying works are about the best the screen offers.
So Mr. Exhibitor, if you are in search for something "different", something out of the common rut of comedies, something that will arouse wondering comment among your fans, then this Bowers number is just what you are looking for. One of the funniest gags that we have ever seen in pictures lately is the scene of the two trained fleas on roller skates using a man's bald head as a rink.
- Raymond Ganly in Motion Picture News, June 23, 1928
A GAG FOR THE AGES:
In A Wild Roomer (1926), Charley invents a mechanical manservant that bathes, manicures, dresses and feeds it's owner. Anticipating Chaplin's feeding machine in Modern Times by a decade, Bowers takes the idea farther than Chaplin ever dared by having the device burst through the house and run rampant through the streets.
A BOWERS MYSTERY:
Thanks to researcher Steve Massa, we now have the basic facts of Bowers' life. But there are questions still to be answered and gaps to be filled in. For example, did Charley do any trick animation for Larry Semon? People familiar with both men's work swear that the stop-motion animation done in such films as Semon's The Simple Sap (1928) is Bowers' handiwork. And how did Charley spend most of the 1930's? Were there any additional films between Its a Bird (1930) and his work for the 1939 NY World's Fair?
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